Drivers along a 50-mile stretch of Interstate 95 in Virginia have been stranded in freezing temperatures for hours after a crash involving multiple vehicles brought the roadway to a standstill and the first mid-Atlantic storm of the year dumped more than a foot of snow on the region.
U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine is among those caught in the chaos, with the Democrat from Virginia tweeting just before 8:30 a.m. on Tuesday that he had been stuck in traffic for at least 19 hours.
“I started my normal 2 hour drive to DC at 1pm yesterday. 19 hours later, I’m still not near the Capitol,” he wrote in the tweet.
Kaine said his office was in touch with the Virginia Department of Transportation “to see how we can help other Virginians in this situation.”
By 10:30 a.m., he said that he was “frustrated, but not in serious trouble.”
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam said his office was working to respond to the situation on I-95.
“State and local emergency personnel are continuing to clear downed trees, assist disabled vehicles, and re-route drivers,” he said in a tweet.
“An emergency message is going to all stranded drivers connecting them to support, and the state is working with localities to open warming shelters as needed,” he said as he urged drivers to continue to avoid the interstate.
The Virginia Department of Transportation said that I-95 was closed from exit 104 to exit 152.
“Crews are working to reopen I-95 as soon as possible,” the department said in a tweet just after 11 a.m. “Work continues to remove disabled vehicles & tractor trailers from the travel lanes.”
VDOT has not responded to multiple requests for comment from NBC News on Tuesday.
Seb Lancaster, a 21-year-old film and television student at Boston University, was on his way to visit his father in Connecticut with his twin sister, her boyfriend and his dog when they got on the interstate and found themselves stuck, forcing them to spend the night trapped in a frigid vehicle.
“My parents are immunocompromised and I assumed road travel would be safer than omicron flights,” he said, referring to the highly transmissible Covid variant.
He was frustrated with what he described as the lack of communication and vague statements coming from VDOT.
“I’m 2 and a half hours ‘on hold’ to speak to a representative for any information,” Lancaster said. “I’ve seen one emergency worker … who when asked for information said, ‘Does it look like I know?'”
“Well, I’d hope you’d know, officer,” Lancaster said.
Lancaster said he entered the traffic jam just after 3 p.m. on Monday, when there was “a little movement for awhile,” allowing drivers to edge forward.
However, at around 11 p.m., he said traffic came to a “standstill,” leaving him and his passengers trapped in their vehicle in the hours since.
Like a scene from ‘La La Land’
“Just after midnight the street was packed like the flashmob in ‘La La Land,’ ” he said, referring to the opening scene from the hit film starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling when trapped motorists exited their cars for a joyful performance of “Another Day of Sun.”
“Though it was much grimmer,” he said, “with people crying, smoking, walking their kids (and) pets, and begging for supplies.”
“Cars are stuck, trees are down, there are miles of parked cars scattered unevenly around the massive ice heaps to avoid getting stuck-stuck, making it impossible for any real emergency effort to reach us,” he said in Twitter messages as his sibling and her partner slept.
Another motorist, Anne Gould, told NBC Washington early Tuesday morning “there’s cars and trucks as far as I can see behind me, and in front of me, and it’s looked like this for 12 hours.”
Gould was on her annual trek to Florida when traffic stopped Monday afternoon. She told the news station that she had only moved a few car lengths by Tuesday at about 6:20 a.m.
While some motorists abandoned their vehicles, others faced a dire situation as they ran out of gas and had no access to food or water.
Some also warned that they had kids and pets in their vehicles, as they struggled to make it through the storm, NBC Washington reported.
The chaos unfolded when all southbound lanes of I-95 were shut down at mile marker 136 near Centreport Parkway after a crash involving several vehicles around noon on Monday.
No one was hurt in the incident, but the collision sparked delays, with VDOT later warning that heavy snow continued to back up traffic.
In a statement published on Twitter at around 8:40 p.m., the agency described the situation as “frustrating & scary.”
“We wish we had a timetable, ETA or an educated guess on when travel will resume on I-95,” the department said. “It’s at a standstill in our area with multiple incidents. Its frustrating & scary.”
“Please know our crews don’t stop,” it said, adding: “Crews will work 24/7 until ALL state-maintained roads are safe for travel.”
By early Tuesday morning, the department said crews were “mobilizing now to start taking people stopped on interstate off nearby interchanges to bring them to alternate routes.”
It also said that snowplows and tow trucks were on the scene, adding that motorists should plan to avoid travel on the interstate “until lanes reopen and significant congestion clears the area.”
Liz Blasso, who estimates she got stuck at about 6:30 p.m. while traveling from Pennsylvania to North Carolina on Monday, expressed in her Instagram stories that she was also frustrated with VDOT’s slow updates.
She said late Tuesday morning that she had moved about eight miles since the night before.
“I had to use a cup to go to the bathroom in my car. I haven’t had any water or caffeine and I’ve been awake for 36 hours or so,” Blasso said. She wasn’t able to take medications she’s supposed to take at night because they make her drowsy.
“I’m not with anybody so I couldn’t really fall asleep,” she said.
Blasso eventually made it to an exit where she pulled off and was taking refuge in an empty motel parking lot.
NBC News correspondent Josh Lederman also got stuck on I-95, with his pet dog in the back seat.
“I try not to tweet about daily inconveniences, but this experience has been insane,” he said in a tweet.
“For the last 7+ hours, I’ve been stuck in my car, not moving, in a total shutdown of I-95 northbound about 30 miles south of DC,” Lederman said.
“The interstate is absolutely littered with disabled vehicles. Not just cars. Semis, everything. Nobody can move. People are running out of gas or abandoning vehicles,” he said in a separate tweet.
Later, he told NBC’s “TODAY” show that he had made it back home safely after what he described as a “crazy night.”
“We were lucky. We had enough gas to make it through without losing power to the car. We were OK without having water and food, but this was a scary situation,” Lederman said.
“I think people expect, given the weather that we were having here, that you might face some delays on the road,” he said. “People were not anticipating, at least I certainly was not, that they would have to be spending the entire night waiting to see if anybody was going to come and clear the road so that people would be able to get out.”
“You don’t expect to be making calculations about, all right, do I have enough water to get me through before I get into a kind of trouble situation,” he said. “Do I have enough gas in my car that’s sitting idle on this highway? (Can it) stay running overnight and keep me warm?”
‘I’m afraid to sleep’
Lancaster said he tried calling the Virginia Department of Transportation himself, but said he was left “on hold” for two hours.
Before that, he said he kept trying to reassure his sister and her partner that “help will be here soon.”
“And it was like 4 a.m. when I suddenly realized help wasn’t coming,” he said.
“I’m afraid to sleep, and afraid to stay up and see what happens,” Lancaster added.
When traffic does start moving, he said he is also nervous about the prospect of having to drive on icy roads.
“With the traffic jam starting during the snowstorm, the road below us was never (and has yet to be) salted,” Lancaster said. “I’m from Florida, and have never driven on ice before … so really anxious about what’s next.”
“(I) am genuinely terrified,” he added.
The National Weather Service warned that icy patches could be “especially problematic” on untreated roadways from Tennessee into Maryland following heavy and wet snowfall.
As drivers found themselves trapped on the interstate, residents also faced sweeping outages that saw more than 400,000 customers from Georgia to Maryland without power by Tuesday morning, according to PowerOutage.US.
Nearly 300,000 of those outages were reported in Virginia alone.